Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The apartments of Her Serene Highness the Princess Scheza were more frightening to Aliya than the new hell the clerics of the Divided God preached in the streets. She stood on the threshold of the Princess's solar, surveying the devastation within. Furniture overturned, curtains and tapestries torn and scorched, still-smoking coals scattered from the marble grate across the tiles. Obscenities against the Divided God and the Son of Heaven and the people of Carnassa were scratched on every inch of every wall in charcoal, in ink and in what looked horribly like dried blood. A pool of vomit despoiled the pristine beauty of the balcony, enclosed in golden filigree screens upon which had been scrawled yet more flagrant blasphemies. Most terrifying of all, though, was the Princess seated cross-legged in a chalked circle in the center of the room. She wore a slave's black robe, even more threadbare and dirty than Aliya's, and her dark hair was shorn whore-short. Her golden eyes were closed, her heart-shaped face tranquil. She looked like a statue carved from flesh, like the beautiful caryatids the alchemists had sold in the plaza carnea before the war.

Aliya stood on the threshold for better than a minute, the rest of the Princess's apartments sparkling clean at her back, before she dared to set foot in the solar. At once the Princess Scheza's golden eyes snapped open. Aliya's breath caught in her throat as the eyes, so like His Holiness's, probed her. The Princess blinked, fixed her gaze dead ahead on nothing and closed her eyes again. Aliya exhaled. Her knees trembled. Slowly, carefully she began to undo the maelstrom of destruction Scheza had wrought upon her solar. She gathered up books, their spines bent and pages ripped, and stacked them by the door. She righted the furniture, rolled the carpets and soiled clothes for dousing in the vats of the fullery and scrubbed the floors with hot water, lye and relentless determination. All the while the Princess did not so much as move. Aliya's skin prickled whenever she looked at the other girl. How could she be so hateful toward her divine father?

The scrubbing of the walls took hours. Aliya attacked the slanderous scrawlings with rags, with brushes, with a straight razor's blade. At last, disheveled and irritated, she flung the razor aside with a cry of anger. It bounced across the tiles, scattering flecks of paint.

“I've transmuted it. The coal dust, the ink, the blood. It's all part of the walls, now. You might get the paint off if you have a week to spare. I couldn't work out a solution to fuse it properly.”

Aliya turned, wide-eyed, to the Princess. Scheza stood within her circle, arms folded and expression remote. She was naked beneath her chalk-dusted black robe. The linen clung to her round breasts. Her eyes had turned a deep, poisonous violet. “You bathe the Maturi. My father's favorite, don't you?” The air grew chill. Frost crackled like fire across the windowpanes.

Aliya nodded, her teeth chattering. Her fingers fumbled numbly at the wall as she pressed herself against it, desperate to escape Scheza's penetrating stare. She would rather have been anywhere in the world, even bathing the arrogant Maturi concubine or back in the horror of the Second Revolution when the Son of Heaven had come to power. Smoke and blood. Her parents hanged for-

Scheza stepped out of her circle. In an instant the air in the room seemed to warm. The Princess's eyes resumed their normal shade of gold. Without comment she went to the books stacked by the door, selected a slim volume bound in blued leather and placed it in Aliya's hands. “Give this to her,” she said. She thrust her face close to Aliya's. “And don't tell my father, or anyone else, unless he, my brother or I directly order it. Given that my brother is on campaign and my father has never spoken to a servant, I feel that should be enough to ensure it gets to her. Don't you think?”

Aliya stared into Scheza's golden eyes, clutching the slim volume against the front of her stained and threadbare robe. “Yes, Princess,” she heard herself say. The words fell from her lips like lead weights.
Scheza stepped back, sizing Aliya up with a critical look. “You're frightened of me.”

Aliya looked down at her feet, cheeks burning. “Please, Princess,” she whispered, her hands tightening on the slim book. “I have so much work to do, and Mistress Chamyde will be angry if I do not finish cleaning.”

“That old relic?” Scheza turned her back on Aliya. She went to a window and put her palm flat against the glass. Her radiant eyes seemed to drink in the city. “I'll see to it you're not punished. Now, run along and deliver that like a good little slave. I have no further use for you here.”

Aliya slid along the wall, her eyes on Scheza. As she neared the door she twisted around and ran, clutching the book hard against her chest. The rest of the Princess's dusty, unused apartments flashed past as she raced for the servants' halls that honeycombed the walls of the palace. She slipped behind a tapestry hanging between two brooding statues of old, dead philosophers, yanked open an ancient pine door and darted into the comforting darkness of her world. She closed the door and breathed the moist, pine-scented air with her back against the cool stone wall of the long, narrow stair. She closed her eyes and shivered. How could something sired by the Son of Heaven be so foul?

Hurried footsteps on the steps brought Aliya's thoughts back firmly to the present. Someone else was coming up the stairs, a shuttered alchemical lamp heralding their approach. Aliya squinted against the sudden brilliance. It was Moana, another of the palace slaves. She paused on a lower stare and looked up through the gloom. “Aliya?” said the round-faced girl “You look like you've seen a demon. Are you alright?”

Aliya swallowed. “It's nothing,” she said. “I was just cleaning the...the Princess's chambers and I thought I saw something. Silly of me. I don't know where my head is.”

Moana shuddered, glancing sidelong at the door through which Aliya had entered the stair. “They should make the dead clean those rooms,” she said. “They're always cold, no matter how hot it is, and she's always sitting there on the floor like some sort of monk.” The other slave climbed a few more steps and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “She isn't right in the head, I've heard.”

Aliya straightened her shoulders. She felt perversely emboldened by the other girl's obvious fear. “Well, no matter,” she said. “She wasn't very frightening. I'll see you at dinner?”

“If I finish with Massoud agha's chambers before midnight,” groaned Moana. “For a vizier, he makes an awful mess.”

After a handful of stale, meaningless pleasantries they parted ways. Aliya pushed back her cowl, took a deep breath and started down the narrow stair. The concubine's apartments were high in the palace's southernmost minaret and it took the best part of an hour to navigate the maze of service corridors that riddled the main keep and its outbuildings. The kitchens passed in a blur of shouting cooks and sweating slaves bent over coal grates or engaged in dicing huge mounds of leeks and onions. Next came one of the palace's countless belfries, an echoing space hung with thick ropes and intricate scaffolds of steel and oak supporting great-tongued bronze bells that rang three times a day. Dry wind blew through the dusty space, stirring the robes of the blind dervishes who worked the bellpulls in exchange for their suppers. Another stair, this one's entrance hidden behind the ponderous bust of a long-dead Thulhun Emperor, took Aliya to a tiny antechamber built on the ninth level of the concubine's tower. Aliya stepped out of the hidden servants' door and let its concealing tapestry fall back into place. She pressed her ear to the apartment door. To interrupt a Holy Union between the Son of Heaven and his chosen vessel would mean blinding or death. She heard nothing, though, and so she eased the door open and went in.

The concubine was sitting in her usual spot, languorously beautiful in her blue silk robe with her long, sleek black hair pinned up at the back of her head. A glass of wine, half-drunk, dangled from her hand. Her pale eyes flicked to Aliya as she emerged from behind the tapestry in the room's corner. Aliya bowed. “Mistress.”

The concubine said something in loose, slurred Maturi, then threw back her head and laughed. Sapphires sparkled around her elegant white neck. Wine spilled from her glass in brilliant drops of carnelian to soak into the carpet. Aliya knelt and, retrieving the book from her sleeve, placed it before her on the carpet. At once the concubine's laughter ceased. A look of predatory hunger flickered across her face. She half-fell from her seat, rushed across the room and snatched the book up from the carpet. Her wineglass rolled across the woven calligraphies, spilling bloody nectar. Tears ran down the Maturi woman's cheeks. She pressed her lips to the book's leather binding as though it were her own child.

Aliya left while the concubine rocked back and forth, sobbing. When, nearly an hour later, she finally reached her cramped cell below the kitchens her feet were sore and a knot of bright pain had twisted itself into being behind her left eye. She sat down heavily on the edge of her straw-stuffed mattress and pulled off her slippers, wincing as the blisters on her feet made themselves known.

She slept fitfully, slipping in and out of dreams in which stone colossi strode through endless forests, their great feet crushing trees and men alike. Moss-bearded, ancient and eroding the giants lumbered without purpose. Some laid down and did not rise. Others sat staring at the stars with glass eyes socketed in rotten stone. When morning finally came she awoke to see Scheza seated cross-legged at the end of her bed. Violet eyes stared at her from the shadows. Aliya's breath caught in her throat. She lay frozen, fingers digging into the mattress ticking. “Please,” she said quietly. “Are you going to kill me?”

Violet spread like spilled blood through the sclera of Scheza's eyes. “Tell me, darling," she said.  "Would you like to be my handmaiden?"

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Yussef sat alone in his war tent, awaiting the reports of his generals. He studied the map laid out before him, a concise scouting of the pass and its tributary branchings through the high peaks. They'd found nothing else serviceable for the moving of an army short of daring the Grand Ocean, though not for lack of trying. Even tunneling had been discussed, but the crust of Machen was thin near the mountains. To dig too deeply was to risk the sea's maw rising up for them all. Soma was the key. Without it they would never gain a foothold in the lowlands of the Confederacy, as his father dreamed. His father. Yussef closed his eyes, reprimanding himself for the thousandth time for his weakness in refusing to accept the necessity of the slaughter at Shibola.
Yussef unsheathed his dagger and drew its curved blade across his palm. A line of brilliant red blossomed amidst old scars. Not a slaughter, he told himself. Holy War. Holy War.

The voice of Moustaffa Horus, his father's chief field marshal and military adviser, broke his self-imposed reverie of guilt. “Serene General,” came Horus's voice. “I beg your permission to enter.”

Yussef cleaned and sheathed his dagger. He wound a kerchief around his bleeding hand. “Enter, friend,” he said.

General Moustaffa Horus pushed aside the tent flap, stepped into its cool confines and prostrated himself at once with his brow pressed firmly to the ground. “Grant this unworthy one leave to stand in your presence, O lord.”

“Please,” said Yussef. He rose and went to the older man to offer him his hand. “My father is the Son of Heaven. I am only a man, Moustaffa.”

The General clasped Yussef's arm in his one remaining hand and got to his feet with a clink of oiled mail. His moustaches framed a mouth scarred by years of gagged slave labor in the quarries of Carnassa, ended when Ahmad Levi had freed the city's slaves from bondage and cast their masters into their chains. Since that day the General had been ferociously loyal to the Floating Empire. Without his daring cavalry charge through the gates of Carnassa, a charge that had cost him most of his left arm, the city would still be in Confederate hands. Together they sat at the war table and for a pleasant interlude discussed such small matters as supply trains, latrine disposition in relation to the pickets and the camp's progress in prospecting for likely sapping sites in the foothills of the peaks. Eventually, though, it came around to the matter that had plagued the army though its summer campaign.

“If we had more alchemists,” said General Horus, looking askance at Yussef. “We might attempt a breach through transmutation.”

Yussef clasped his hands together atop the table. “My holy father has involved our alchemists in his great labor,” he said. “It is not for us to question his designs.”

Horus frowned. “I meant no disrespect, Most Serene.”

“No,” said Yussef. He stood, bracing himself against the table to inspect the map from a different vantage. Was he missing something? It nagged at him, like a half-recalled memory of childhood. “No. Of course not. 

"Your loyalty is not in question, General.”

The older man nodded stiffly, appeased.

They were joined in short order by the rest of Yussef's High Command. General Jalal, bluff, bearded and eminently martial, and the callous, hard-eyed General Malak, his face marked with the claw-scars of his duel with the Confederate alchemist Nero Cadiz, the Lion of Carnassa. They came with their own complaints and concerns, all couched in language dripping with respect. Yussef did his best to mediate between them, reaching in his growing irritation for the legendary calm for which his father was known in council. By the meeting's end his head was throbbing, his temper frayed and his hair disheveled. Precious little had been decided. He dismissed his Generals and left the tent. A cheer went up as Yussef's men caught sight of him, and he did his best to return their enthusiasm with a raised hand and a brief grin. Spear butts thumped against the ground all the while as he walked back toward his low white tent in the barracks quarter of the camp. 

Mud squelched beneath his boots. Drovers, laborers and soldiers saluted him in passing.

Yussef's tent was bare but for a wood-frame cot and a worn prayer rug. He pulled off his boots by the flap, leaving them for his attendants to clean, and then stripped off his heavy arming jacket and mail shirt. He flexed his cut hand, ignoring the constant throbbing pain. It was less than he deserved for his constant doubting. With a sigh Yussef knelt on his prayer rug and pressed his forehead to its well-worn patterns of lotus flowers and flowing Machi calligraphy, recitations of the many names of the Divided God. He prayed as the sun closed its petals, folding back into the darkness of the horizon and taking with it day's cloying heat. He prayed until his knees ached and his back burned, until his elbows had been rubbed raw by the rug's fibers and his hair was lank with sweat. He prayed for his mother's long-departed soul, and for his sister's wayward one. He prayed for the people of the Empire, and for the people of the Confederacy. When he was finished he rose stiffly and undressed. Wearing only his linen underrobe he sank down onto his cot and closed his burning eyes. His headache kept sleep at bay for better than an hour, but at last it relented and deep waters closed over him.

Something waited for him in the gloomy, lifeless depths. A sun, sea-swaddled and diffuse, its blazing corona so vast it blotted out the inky reaches of the chasm over which Yussef floated, directionless and cold. The sun gave no heat, and even as he watched its light grew dim and red like the sun of cold, dark Aligher on the far side of Cthun. At last even its last feeble emanations faded and Yussef was left alone in the eddying nothingness. He heard the thunder of slow wings, vast and dusty. It frightened him, made him suddenly desperate for the surface and a lungful of sweet, life-giving air. He looked up, saw the distant glimmer of sky and kicked out for its promise of release. His hands clawed at the distance like a beast's. His lungs burned.

His head broke the surface at last to a thunderous crash of trumpets. Light blazed. Voices recited dizzying words. Yussef kicked desperately to keep his head above the water, sucking in air as though he had never drawn breath before in his life. Half-blind he turned first one way and then another, seeking the source of the radiance and the chanting, multi-throated and overlapping itself in sonorous, arrhythmic meter. For an instant he saw, sitting cross-legged on the water, a porcelain man with a sun for a face, and then the dream was gone and he lay gasping in his cot in his tent as rain drummed against the canvas. For a while he allowed himself to lie, eyes still aching from the brilliant light his mind had inflicted upon them. Then, mustering himself, he got up and dressed. It took him half an hour to do up his own laces and straps, but the thought of calling for Ustad, his page, rankled for some reason. Thunder rumbled like a broken drum.

Out in the camp proper the army's banners hung limp in the driving rain. Mud-spattered drovers struggled to calm bellowing ankylosaurs as the armored beasts stamped and swung their bone-clubbed tails in agitation. Lightning scrawled weird calligraphies across the sky, throwing men and tents into sharp relief. In the distance the walls of Soma loomed, guardian statues glaring from its recessed length. Stone hands cupped watchtowers where alchemical beacons burned behind watchmen wrapped in cloaks against the wind and rain. Stone eyes stared blindly at the sky. The rain was warm, the smoke-smelling wind a whispered reminder of the burning south.

Shibola. Lightning seared an afterimage of Soma into Yussef's eyes. It lingered, glowing with electric radiance. He saw the doors of the Tabernacle slam shut, saw his own lips form the order to bar and brace them against the screaming masses trapped within. Hands pressed against the stained-glass windows of the great cathedral. Hymns to the Maintainer screamed at the top of desperate lungs as the soldiers of the Empire lit torches and piled oil-soaked brush around the Tabernacle walls. Yussef blinked rain from his eyes and closed his injured hand. The pain of the half-scabbed cut across his palm was a reminder.

A son must obey his father's commands

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Nassar Qasim rode through his city with a full honor guard and state procession to the gates of Soma, his seat and fiefdom and the lynchpin of the entire Confederacy's southern provinces. The people watched in silent ranks from the raised walkways built on either side of the Street of Moons. Some few threw meager handfuls of whiteblossom petals onto the marching procession, but the flowers were lone snowflakes against the iron grey of the sky and most of the watchers were joyless and said nothing. Nassar ignored the stares of his people and instead concentrated on looking magisterial and confident, neither of which he felt with any particular conviction. At least his heavy black robes of office, sewn with the Maintainer's golden sun, concealed the tremors in his hands. His hadrosaur lumbered down the thoroughfare, its rolling gait causing Nassar's howdah to rock gently from side to side. The beast let out a long, mournful honk as they neared the towering iron gates. Great engines concealed within the walls ground into motion and the gates began to rise, dirt and refuse sifting free of the great iron teeth that slotted into the road as they were pulled free of their sockets. Guardsmen in the gilt-painted armor of the soldiery of the People's Holy Confederacy saluted him from their posts in the statuary guard towers that flanked the gates.

The first thing Nassar saw was the smoke rising from distant Shibola. It marred the whole southern horizon with its brownish stain, darkening the land below the mountain pass where Soma sprawled astride the pass between the gnarled and hoary horns of the highest peaks of the Mountains of Madness, stark Rafiq's Folly and ice-capped Winter's Crown. The rumors of the Tabernacle's burning were true, then. Nassar said nothing, though he heard several of his honor guard mutter the Maintainer's name and furtively mark themselves with the sign of obeisance. More immediate than the smoke, and more worrisome to Nassar and his city, was the army of long-haired fanatics camped in the shadow of Soma's walls. Maintainer's Eyes, but there were a lot of them. Their tents stretched across the pass in orderly profusion, ringed with stakes and ditches behind which archers stood in tireless sentinel rows. Downslope, teams of slaves, saurians and laborers toiled along the mountain road, hauling lumber to the camp where the rebel's artificers were constructing their siege engines.

Leaving the city, humble as it was before the rebel horde, felt like crawling out of a suit of armor and into a raging gale. Soma had been Nassar's home for the best part of his thirty-eight years and its squat, statuary walls and the low stone sprawl of its high-piled domiciles were more raiment than habitation after so long. He wished he could have stood atop the gatehouse and bellowed down to the upstarts, but a meeting on neutral ground made him look stronger, more martial. He had to risk it.

Nassar let his hadrosaur lumber its way to just outside of bowshot of the wall before he reined it to a halt. The dun-colored beast swung its long, curved crest and honked again. The sound echoed from the slopes of the mountains. His escort fanned out around him, yellow-robed mullahs with their dark beards and stern eyes, knights mounted on mail-barded gallus saurians with long, slender necks and powerful legs. They chirped and rumbled to one another, thick tails lashing the air as their beaklike mouths snapped open and shut. Nassar allowed himself a brief moment of satisfaction at the grandeur of his party, framed as it was by the great guardian statues of Soma's walls. Surely, even the barbarian prophet's famous son would be awed. His short-lived smirk died on his lips as from the enemy encampment a lone figure came walking.

Serene General Yussef Levi was the spitting image of his father, clean-shaven and handsome despite his soiled campaigning gear. He wore a simple leather surcoat over mail, quilting and boiled leather. The sign of his father's newborn fief, a mask half dark and half light, graced the breast of his surcoat. He went unarmed and carried his helmet beneath his arm. Nassar watched him cross the bare earth between his camp and the Soma delegation. The fool left himself vulnerable, gambling on Nassar's honor to make himself look the fearless hero to his men and, more importantly, to the men on the walls of Soma.

Yussef halted a few yards from where Nassar sat his mount. He raised a hand in greeting. “Well met in the light of the Two Who Are One, magistrate,” he said, “and in the name of my father, the Shah of Five Thousand Years and Glorious Son of Heaven. I have come to demand the surrender of your city, agha.”
Nassar shifted in his seat, then leaned forward. He spoke just loud enough so that his men could hear him. “Is it two gods, or is it one?”

Yussef's brow furrowed. “I don't understand.”

“I think a proper deity should be able to make up its mind on the count of how many there are of it,” said Nassar. “It seems only common divine decency.”

“I am not here to debate theology,” said Yussef, frowning. “I deliver my father's terms to you, magistrate. Hear them or ignore me as you will. First, you will open the gates of this city to my father's army. Second, you will not resist our occupation of this city in any way. Third, you will render up all your stores and submit your treasury to an Inquisitorial Audit. Fourth, you will raze every Tabernacle to the Maintainer within the walls of Soma. Do these things, swear fealty to my father and your city will be spared the ravages of siege.”

Nassar regarded the younger man, unspeaking. Seconds ticked by, measured by the silver Maturi pocketwatch Nassar kept in the breast of his underrobe. “No,” he said at last. “I don't think so. You can understand my concerns, given the view?” He gestured toward Shibola. “I'm afraid it must be war, boy. May your strength fail you and your sword shatter.”

“As you will it, agha,” said Yussef. He bowed stiffly, then turned his back on Nassar and returned to his camp. Nassar watched him go, a cold feeling of unease growing in his stomach as his hadrosaur turned and began to make its slow, plodding way back toward Soma. Yussef Levi was a true believer, a man absolutely assured of his own correctness. In short, a dangerous bastard.

His escort streamed after him. In slow procession they made their way back through the silent city to Nassar's seat, the Magisterial Manse. The manse was a vast, militaristic edifice hacked out of the living stone of Winter's Crown a year after the Battle of Leng and the revolution's triumphant end. Its grim facade loomed forbiddingly over a narrow bridge and dry moat, a constant reminder to the remote city, along with the onion-domed Tabernacle opposite it, of the presence of the Confederacy. Nassar dismounted his hadrosaur amidst the bustle of the manse's crowded inner courtyard and, waving off a storm of aides and shouting clerics, made his way inside.

Ora Tamir was waiting for him in his dining room. The old mullah, Nassar's childhood tutor and the current head of Soma's tabernacle, rose from his cushion at the table's head as Nassar slammed the room's heavy double doors at his back. The silence echoed between them, as did Ora's disapproving stare. “I haven't the patience for your remonstrations, Ora,” said the magistrate. “I've been hectored by the guilds and council since midwinter. We cannot negotiate with Levi or his son. Orders from the Hierophant.” He stalked to the table and seized a date from a silver dish laid out after the morning meal. He regretted his harsh tone almost at once. Ora looked frail beneath his yellow cassock, worn down by age and sickness.

“You are rash, Nassa,” said the old man as he sank back down upon his cushion. He held a porcelain cup of coffee in his gnarled hands. “Too swiftly do you turn to bloodshed as an answer to your problems. I tried to teach you to act like a man, but you insist on playing the child. Your banquets, your women-”

“They're your problems, too, Ora,” said Nassar. He took another date and popped it into his mouth. “We've ninety thousand men, women and children locked in a mountain pass with reinforcements months away at best, never coming at worst, and six thousand soldiers to man our walls against fifty thousand. The Maintainer himself couldn't-”

“I won't hear your blasphemy, boy,” said Ora, his reedy old man's voice dark with anger. “Keep a pious tongue in your head when you speak of our maker.”

Nassar chewed, swallowed and dipped his hands into a bowl of rose oil set out for that purpose. He dried them on a rough white towel, then turned back to his mentor. “My apologies, Ora. It was a long night, and this morning has been hard. Did you make the appointment I asked you to?”

“No good will come of it,” said Ora. He set down his cup and ran a hand through his magnificent white beard. “He awaits you in your solar.”

“Thank you,” said Nassar. He left the room by the servants' door, jogging quickly up the narrow stone steps behind it and making his way through the bustling kitchens to the quiet rooms of the manse's sixth floor. In his solar, a comfortable room lined with books and redolent with the odor of tobacco, sat a gaunt, bearded man of perhaps fifty. He looked up from his book, a slim red volume on philosophy from the solar's collection, at Nassar's entrance. His eyes were pale, curiously so, as though all the color had been leached out of them. He had the look of a man once much fatter and his clothes were very poor. Old scars marred his wrists and neck.

“Agha,” he said in a voice as dead as his stare. “I owe you my freedom.”

“And my father your imprisonment,” said Nassar as he stepped past the other man and sat on the edge of his desk. It was hard not to be unnerved by the alchemist's soulless mien. “I wonder, Ibrahim,” he asked. “What did you learn in your cell, these past ten years?”

“Patience,” said Ibrahim. “Some chemistry. Six hundred poems.”

“Have you forgotten the crime for which you were jailed?”

The man didn't blink. “Illegal philosophy. Sixteen counts of militarization of the dead.”

“Have you forgotten the craft?”


Nassar laced his hands together. Ibrahim's pale stare bored into him. The once-fat man's hands clutched the slim leather book as though it were a piece of driftwood in a storm at sea. At last, Nassar slid off of his desk and offered Ibrahim his hand. “This city will die without your help,” he said. “A full pardon, and passage to wherever you wish once the siege is done.”

Ibrahim gripped Nassar's hand without hesitation. The alchemist's palm was soft and damp. “I'll need batteries,” he said, “and corpses.”

“You'll have the first now,” said Nassar, “and the second soon enough.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Spotlight On: Machen


Machen is one of the original Four Great Continents that breached the seas of the world of Cthun at the moment of its creation.  It is the second largest, behind Aligher, of the three surviving landmasses and home to the Machi race.  Its climate is primarily arid desert between the girdling Mountains of Madness and the capital of Leng.  The rivers flowing from the mountains render the southerly provinces, known collectively as the Somnium, habitable.  Most of the continent's agriculture is conducted in the Somnium's wheat fields and rice paddies.  In the northern provinces, orchards predominate.  Goats, hadrosaurs and camarosaurs form the basis of the continent's animal husbandry, with oviraptors and brushfowl used as egg-laying stock.

Plentiful deposits of marble, gold, iron and granite, along with the aid of the powerful alchemists of the Children of the Sun, have made Machen wealthy and influential.  Its cities are colossal, its fortresses, tabernacles and palaces the greatest of their like.


The Machi tribesmen are desert dwellers, traditionally herdsmen and hunters who travel in tribes between oases.  Their religion is simple and austere, based almost entirely on the worship of their creator deity, the faceless Maintainer.  Those who hold to the Machi faith engage in ritual prostration, prayer, water sacrifice and a coming-of-age ritual called the Hamud-dai, or Longest Walk in which a youth ventures alone into the desert in an attempt to gain oneness with the Maintainer's unapproachable essence.  If they return alive they are permitted to marry and are considered adults by the tribe.


The race of Thul, white-skinned and populous, came to the shores of Machen in 316 in a great fleet fleeing the death of the Fourth Continent.  With them they brought an imperial tradition already hundreds of years old, a powerful standing army and a state religion steeped in ritual and bloodshed.  Their alchemists swiftly raised fortifications beyond the ken of the native Machi, dark-skinned nomads who hunted with raptors and kept goats in the vast wastes of the continent's heartland.  For nearly twelve hundred years Thulhun dominance defined Machen, enforcing a rigid caste system under which the native Machi labored as slaves to the decadent Thulhun nobility.

Internecine conflict between the Thulhun houses and dynasties was common, and more than twenty families held, at some point in the Empire's history, the Peacock Throne and Porcelain Crown of Imperial authority.  Fratricide was held as an art, patricide an inevitability.  Any Emperor or Empress who seized power without bloodshed was counted a pretender and, more often than not, swiftly unseated by more ruthless relatives.  In the ninth century, dating from the Machi worship of the Maintainer through his earthly avatar the sage Moammar, the Empire entered a period of decline dominated by civil war, famine, plague and economic unrest that would continue until the revolutions of the late fifteenth century.


In the winter of 1498 Massud Madras, a Machi tribal chieftain and renowned Mulla, instigated a civil war against the Thulhun Empire after the slaughter of one of his tributary tribes for the offense of drinking at an Imperial oasis.  The massacre's architect, Emperor Azurean V, died shortly thereafter of consumption, but even his even-handed successor, Empress Nazarri II, could not allay the upwelling of rebellious sentiment among the Machi.  After a protracted war against the Unconquerable Legions, the Machi rebels were victorious at the port city of Tattva, seventy miles west of the capital, and Madras was installed in Leng as Hierophant of the People's Heavenly Confederacy.  A pogrom against the Thulhun ethnicity followed, brutal in its thoroughness and merciless in its targets.  Neither women, children nor the elderly were spared.  Madras cemented his control over the Machi people by marrying his military lieutenants to the daughters of chieftains and courting with gifts and concessions the ancient Covens of alchemists based within the cities.

In 1504, Madras called off the purges but the damage was done.  The Thulhuns had been reduced to a tiny minority, downtrodden and loathed, and Madras's Heavenly Confederacy encompassed almost all of the continent.  Religion took on a new, central role in Machi life as the faith of the Maintainer, a traditional Machi creator spirit, was institutionalized.  Though his control over the South remained tenuous, it appeared that Madras had triumphed.  Under his rule Machen began, again, to prosper.


Ahmad Levi was born 1462 in the slums of Carnassa to a nameless Thulhun whore and one of her customers, allegedly a Machi cobbler.  This unassuming start, plagued by the misfortune of his mother's race, led to greatness.  In his thirty-seventh year Levi, working as an itinerant laborer, collapsed in a quarry while suffering from black fever.  For six days Levi lay on his sickbed, hovering on the edge of death until, on the seventh day, he arose seemingly recovered and began to speak of visions imparted to him by a Divided God.  He fled his labor contract, joined a mercenary band in the hinterlands and by 1508 had amassed a group of devoted followers.

In 1510 Levi seized Carnassa by force, sacking and looting the city for a single bloody week before installing himself as its ruler.  Since then he has engaged in a long, bloody war of conquest in the South that has seen the consistent defeat of Confederate forces.  His plans remain enigmatic to the rest of Machen and even to his own generals and viziers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Carnassa, city of a thousand lights. It glittered in the darkness as though a million fireflies had given up their light to its radiance. Alchemical beacons glowed sun-bright atop the tallest towers while windows glowed in numberless profusion. Thousands thronged the streets by torch and candlelight, paying homage or penance at the new-risen shrines of the Shah of Five Thousand Years, Glorious Son of Heaven. Two million souls called Carnassa home, but to Alice le Fleur it was just another prison wall built up around her. On the seat beside her bedroom window she sat watching smoke rise from the foundries by the Gate of Glory where the Son of Heaven had commanded the bellfounders to forge new weapons for his endless mad wars. The skeletons of his half-built temples to the Twin Gods, the Two That Were One, bulked high above the city.

The servants' door, a little oaken portal hidden by a tapestry, opened and a slave girl dressed in black stepped into the lavish room. “Nabez imi nita?” said the slave.

“I hadn't any idea what you were saying when I arrived in this dreadful place to marry Daud Khan,” said Alice. “Now he's dead, I'm a madman's concubine and I still haven't any idea what you're fucking saying.”

“Shadi imi, lyita,” admonished the slave. She stepped aside and four half-nude eunuchs, fat brown men with quick eyes and muscle-roped arms filed into the room past her, bearing between them a brass bath filled with steaming milk.

Alice regarded the bath with trepidation and anger. “Again with this idiocy? You have realized I'm not a pig for stewing, haven't you?”

The eunuchs set down the bath in the center of the room, then bowed their heads to the carpet and knelt motionless as the slave girl stepped forward and put a hand on Alice's sleeve. “Nissi,” said the girl, plucking at the fabric.

“Mysteries abound,” said Alice, offering a limp hand for the slave's consideration. “How you Machi savages mastered the wheel is surely the greatest of them. Do you want me to strip, slave? I should parade myself before you? Is that it?” Lazily, she slid from her seat, her sheer silk gown slithering after her, and spread her arms. “Undress me, then. Let the half-men watch.”

Cautiously, as though Alice were a wild animal caught in a trap, the slave girl removed her black samite robe and began to undo the clasps of her heron-patterned underrobe with dark, nimble fingers. Alice smirked at the kneeling eunuchs as the slave undressed her. Naked, white in a room full of shit-colored skin, she admired herself in the mirror set along the north wall. Twenty-six and she still had her figure. Hips a bit wider, the start of lines at the corners of her eyes, but the war was progressing well. Oh, joyous day. She would retain for another year the affections of her tyrannical captor. Alice allowed herself to be led to the bath which, knowing the pointlessness of rebellion, she climbed into. The thick, grassy smell of the milk filled her nostrils and her skin reddened as she sank into the creamy liquid. The slave girl began to brush out her long black hair with a bone comb.

“Wine!” cried Alice, lolling back against the bath's smooth rim. She flung a hand into the air, splashing the slave with droplets of milk. “Poppy! Hashish! Bring me something, you ignorant cow.” She glared at the younger woman, who dropped her eyes, and then slumped back into the bath and let the child continue brushing out her hair. “I expect you hate me,” she mused.

The girl said nothing. When the milk bath was finished she washed Alice with cold water, patted her dry and dressed her in a flowing robe of bright blue silk. She bound Alice's hair up in an elaborate knot held in place by two of the long, narrow bamboo spines the Machi used to eat the rice they grew in their miasmal paddies. Then, after prostrating herself on the carpet, the slave departed and took the eunuchs with her. One chanced a backward glance at Alice. She winked at him, making him flinch, and then he was gone and the door slammed shut behind him. Alice sighed. She stood at the center of a room luxurious enough to stun a King. The walls were paneled in graven jade, decorated with fanciful depictions of spirits and ancient warriors. The ceiling was gilt oak set with alchemical lamps cunningly concealed in wooden frameworks latticed in patterns of mind-bending complexity.  The light that leaked through them smeared the walls and floor with stars.  Her bed was soft and deep, shrouded with hanging tapestries. Rich cushions padded the corners and jewelry draped her night-table like hanging moss. But no books, no paper, no quills or charcoal. Alice's hands curled into fists of their own volition at the old wrong. Her long, painted nails dug into her smooth palms.

He denied her everything while showering her in gifts. At the court of Maturin she had been better-treated, even as a nobleman's bastard; she had been educated, groomed for polite society if not for royal circles. Here she was a vain, feckless monster's sometimes plaything. When he bored of her, she languished. When he desired her she lived in fear of his mad temper. As though her keeper's vile gods had read her mind, the porcelain bell beside the gilt-painted Master's Door rang twice, its steel clapper clanging tinnily back and forth, back and forth before finally falling still. Ahmad wanted her tonight. He would come to her chambers before sunset. Alice's fists unclenched. She went to her window and sat, wishing it were large enough to accommodate a fatal plunge.

She was still sitting there when Ahmad arrived, heralded by the creak of the Master's Door opening. The glimpse of the torchlit hall outside was enough to bring tears to Alice's eyes before it was shut away with a thud of wood on wood. The Son of Heaven padded barefoot across the carpets to where Alice sat. He cupped her jaw in his hand. “Why so sorrowful, my jewel?” His other hand slid beneath her dressing gown to grip her breast. He smelled of sandalwood and jasmine and his skin was the color of oiled teak. “I like it better when you smile.”

He used her roughly, like a huntsman beating his horse, and when at last his seed ran down her thighs he rolled off of her, left the bed and dressed himself in his long white robe. Alice watched him from where she lay. His every motion was smooth and practiced, every line of his body chiseled. His golden eyes flitted around the room. He said something in Machi, chuckled ruefully to himself and then sat down in her seat by the window. A flash of irrational anger pricked Alice's breast. He had everything. Why did he have to usurp her fucking chair on top of it all? She sat up, clutching the sheets against her bruised and red-marked breasts.

Ahmad gazed wistfully out at his city, seized in fire and blood less than a year past. “My daughter fled the Palace today,” he said in his clipped, heavily-accented Maturi. “A skillful Captain of the city watch recovered her, or else she might have left Carnassa. How long would she have lasted alone on the road?”

Alice said nothing. Tears stung her eyes at the thought of all the other women suffering bondage at Ahmad's whim. How many were there?

“Such a willful child,” said Ahmad, shaking his shaven head. “She must be punished, but how am I to punish her? No hand save mine can touch her without despoiling her sacred blood, and I would sooner beat myself than my dear child.”

“His Holiness could grant her the freedom of the city.”

The words left Alice's lips without warning, as though someone else had conceived of them in secret and spat them out of her mouth in proxy. Ahmad turned to regard her incredulously, one thin eyebrow rising. “I am the only son of the Two-Part God,” he said, his voice quiet. “My daughter bears the purest issue of my blood, for in her it might be refined and passed on. My sons are but imperfect vessels, incapable of anything but inferior transmission. What would happen if she were despoiled? What wrath might the Two Who Are One bring down upon Machen, upon all of Cthun, if my line were damaged or extinguished? Think before you open that cunt in your face you call a mouth, woman.” He spat his last words at her, already on his feet and trembling with rage.

Alice looked down at her hands. Her nails were painted midnight blue with little knotted filigrees of gold across them. “This unworthy one abases herself before you, Holiness. I spoke without thought, and so erred.” Tears curved down her cheeks to meet beneath her chin.

“Don't weep, child.” He was at her side, his hand stroking her cheek. “I am forgiveness, and I absolve you of your sin.”

And then he was gone and the room was full of billowing dust. Alice scrambled out of bed, choking and coughing, and stumbled across the room to throw open the window. It was stuck fast and resisted her curses and exertions both with equal impunity. She looked down, squinting through the dust. Ahmad had transmuted the window's iron latch into solid bone while he'd sat beside it. Alice stared dumbly at the latch for a long moment, and then she sat down naked in the middle of the floor and sobbed until her throat was dry and her eyes were red and swollen.

It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair.

Monday, May 23, 2011


The gutters of Carnassa were foul with blood. Captain Azhar Khalid strode at the head of his Decad through the masses of the poor and dispossessed. His robe and mail were grimy, every inch of his regalia spattered with Divided-God-knew-what. His ornithus had foundered and broken a leg during the last night's riots and he'd had to put the poor beast, one of the city guard's last, out of its misery. Now his feet were sore, his clothes and armor filthy and his temper frayed dangerously short. Only one thing stood between him and a long, well-deserved fucking at the nearest whorehouse: The Son of Heaven's heir was missing. No man in the guard could so much as sit to catch his breath, the Shah of Five Thousand Years had declared, until his daughter was found and brought before him. And so Azhar Khalid led his ten ragged soldiers through the press of silent, dull-eyed refugees in a fruitless search for a sixteen-year-old girl in a city of millions.

Azhar pushed on through the stench and the human refuse, sword drawn and cloak thrown back over one shoulder. If he did find the girl, he'd have to keep from beating her all the way to the gates of the Floating Palace with the flat of the blade. Six nights of riots and now she'd kept him out of bed four hours past the guard's shift rotation. Azhar gritted his teeth and shouldered past a toothless old man who clutched at the sleeve of his uniform. “Funny,” said Amar Kateb, Azhar's portly second in command. “The usual vibrant enthusiasm for our presence is lacking.”

“Keep at it,” said Azhar through his teeth. “You've seen what the Divine and Rectifying Inquisition doles out for seditious talk. Do you want your head over the Gate of Glory?”

“Better there than on my shoulders if I'm to be wading through muck for the rest of my days,” said Kateb with a ponderous shrug. They paused together as a lumbering ceratopsian made its way across the muddy road, dull eyes sweeping the crowds. Its flanks heaved like bellows as its rider, a huge man seated in a howdah atop its back, urged it forward, pressing his billhook to its frill whenever it sought to turn aside from its path. The beast lowed and swung its massive head from side to side. Azhar watched, nonplussed, as it shat in the street and then plodded onward, unconcerned.

Beautiful, beautiful Carnassa. He'd kill himself if he had to stay another month. Azhar wiped futilely at his mud-spattered face, sheathed his sword and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Right,” he said, “we're getting nowhere. Take Malik, Shadi and Nasir down into the Gardens. Ask around, see if you can find out anything of use. I'll carry on up here.”

Kateb scowled at Azhar. The Gardens were the lowest and foulest of Carnassa's many slums, a warren of tumbledown shanties and lean-tos half drowned in runoff and rife with cutthroats, footpads and lotus eaters.

“That's an order,” said Azhar.

“Understood, captain,” growled Kateb. He signaled his fellow condemned and together the four men set off at a trot in the direction of the Gardens, following the Penitent Road on its downward, southerly track. Azhar stood and watched them go. It would be a pity if Kateb were killed down there in the muck. A true tragedy for the Floating Empire of Eternal Peace.


Azhar turned to Raed, the Decad's oldest member and honorary idiot in chief. The grizzled old codger, veteran of Gods-only-fucking-cared many wars, was pointing across the street at a ramshackle stall shaded by a half-rotten awning where a young girl, filthy and dressed in rags, was arguing with a massive vendor over the price of skewered rats. Raed's face was screwed up in a look of intense concentration. “Isn't that Her Most Serene Highness?”

Azhar swallowed. There was no mistaking it. The curve of the jaw, the stray lock of black hair escaping her peasant cowl. The eyes, golden and clever as they scanned the merchant's wares. “Yes,” he heard himself say as though from a long way off. “Yes, Raed. It is indeed Her Most Serene Highness.”

“Ah,” said Raed, “I thought so.”

The girl chose that singularly inopportune moment to notice that she, in turn, had been noticed. Her eyes found Azhar's. They widened, and then she bolted into the crowd like a frightened scavenger saurian. “AFTER HER!” roared Azhar, ripping his sword from its sheath. “IN THE NAME OF THE FUCKING SON OF HEAVEN, MAKE WAY!”

Never in his career had he run half so fast as he did in pursuit of his sovereign's errant child. The girl was fleet-footed, slim and swift, but Azhar's sandaled feet flew over the muck-buried cobbles as though he chased not a dictator's whelp but the sum of all his dreams. And, given that the sum of Azhar's dreams involved abandoning his shift in favor of a prolonged stay in a whorehouse, that was more or less the case. His lungs burned as he sprinted after the eel-quick girl. His legs throbbed. He forced himself onward, vaulting the destitute lying in the gutter, skidding around fruit carts and startled saurians towing stalls to new locations. He lunged for the back of the girl's flapping cloak. He missed, lunged again, sprang over a mound of rotten planking and then threw himself at her in a reckless leap and crashed to the ground with her arm clutched in his hand. Instantly her foot slammed into the side of his jaw. The world spun, but he hung on.

“Let me go, you cretin!” she shrieked.

Azhar clawed his way to his feet, befouled and disheveled, with the girl kicking and struggling in his grip. A moment later his men caught him up, puffing and red-faced. They looked as dumbfounded as Azhar felt. His jaw hurt. He grinned through the pain like a madman. “Raed,” he said to the elderly guardsman, “I'm going to buy you a whore with a cunt that smells like honey and fucks like lightning.”

The girl let out a cry of frustration while the huddled masses looked on, silent and unapproachable in their decrepitude.

An hour later Azhar found himself in the Grand Imperial Concourse of the Floating Palace, waiting for an audience with the Shah of Five Thousand Years. Ahmad Levi, the Son of Heaven. Azhar sat dumbstruck, ears ringing, on a white marble bench situated between gurgling fountains carved into the shapes of copulating water nymphs, limbs and bodies intertwined and flowing into one another. The work was raw, elemental, and at another time the guardsman might have appreciated it. Instead, he felt only fear. Within minutes of his recapture of Her Most Serene Highness, Azhar had been surrounded by a cadre of the drab-uniformed Tranquil Order, secret police of the Hierarchy, and marched along with his charge through the city to the precincts of the Floating Palace with its caryatid columns, burnished domes and mosaic floors. Alchemists, artists and musicians, all the entourage of the Son of Heaven, had watched him pass through the halls, a disheveled and unkempt man in foul leathers and mail. Azhar had given them his best parade-ground smile, hoping he didn't have shit on his teeth. And then the Guard had taken the girl, vanished into the cloisters and left him sitting alone.

The sky, open beyond the columned arcade of the Concourse, yawned over the uneven horizon of the city's jutting towers and cesspit slums, brazen domes and slender minarets. Smoke rose from the stack-toothed foundries near the Gate of Tears and cranes rose and fell like the necks of sauropods in distant profusion about the quarries at the city's heart. Azhar was painfully aware of how out-of-place he looked in the sun-drenched Concourse with its hanging baskets of weeping violets and its bronze-cast alchemical lamps. Water frothed and gurgled in the fountains. He twiddled his thumbs, waiting. Perhaps he'd be flayed for laying hands on the girl. Perhaps he'd be drawn and quartered, or given to the Tranquil Order to vanish into the water cells beneath the Palace. Sighing, he raked a hand through his greasy black hair.

A deafening concussion knocked Azhar from his seat. He fell on his arse, ears thundering, as marble-white dust rolled between the columns of the arcade in billowing waves. Azhar clawed for his sword, scrambling back until his back hit a carved pillar and he remembered the Tranquil Order had disarmed him. He blinked dust from his eyes, pulling himself up on shaking legs as the clouds of billowing grit began to clear. He glimpsed the vague outline of a tall, slender figure brushing rubble from its robes. A face, half-seen, turned toward him and a brilliant smile knifed through the sudden gloom. “Captain Khalid,” said its owner.

Something small and shiny arced through the air, bounced off of the marble with a click and came to rest against Azhar's right sandal. He bent down slowly and picked it up, eyes still trained on the nebulous figure in the dust. It was a metal ball, no bigger than the end of Azhar's thumb. He straightened, palming the little ball-bearing. Anything was better than no weapon at all. “Who are you?” he asked the figure. A man stepped out of the billowing detritus. He was tall and slender, handsome in a clean-cut fashion with a shaven head and long, neat features. He wore a plain white robe of samite with a double row of gold buckles down its front and on the third finger of his left hand was a simple golden band. Azhar recognized him at once. How could he not, when the man's face was on half the awnings, storefronts and temple daises in the city? He fell to his knees, the ball-bearing slipping from his sweaty palm to strike the floor with a bright click.

“Please, Captain Khalid,” said the Son of Heaven, “there's no need to stand on ceremony.” He took Azhar's hands, his own were smooth and dry, and helped him to his feet. “I'm afraid my new alchemical processes still require some refinement. The iron foundries cannot remove all impurities from my catalysts.” He gestured to the ball-bearing, then turned and strode to the arcades. Azhar followed in a daze. Ahmad Levi looked back at him, golden eyes bright and inquisitive. “You have restored my daughter to me, Captain.”

“I did my duty, Holiness,” Azhar heard himself say.

“And you will be rewarded,” said Ahmad with a smile. He snapped his fingers and another ball-bearing dropped from empty space a few feet from where he stood, followed by another choking explosion of dust. A kneeling man appeared with a groan and then slumped over onto his side. He was shackled hand to foot, his back cruelly twisted by his fetters. Ahmad prodded his cheek with a bare foot. “This,” he said, “is Lord Captain Commander Reza Sinan. Until today he led the Tranquil Order well and ably. Unfortunately, he failed to protect my daughter with the proper diligence.”

The officer groaned, shifting pitiably under Ahmad's foot. “Your Holiness, I-”

Lightning-quick, Ahmad produced a phial of some ruby substance from his sleeve and dropped it into the prostrate officer's mouth. Glass, paper-thin, tinkled as it broke against his teeth. Reza's eyes bulged as his sentence ended in a horrible choking gurgle and red-swirled water sluiced from his mouth in a brackish torrent. His tongue had been transmuted into water.

Azhar watched, nauseous, as Ahmad looked down at the shuddering Reza Sinan.

Without warning the Son of Heaven's eyes flicked back to Azhar's. “Kill him,” he said, “and his place at my side is yours.”

It didn't take Azhar long to think it over.   

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spotlight On: Vital Philosophy

Hey guys.  Here's a new thing I'll be doing once or twice a week.  I'll take an idea glossed over in the text and show you in-depth how it works in the world of Cthun.  Today I'll talk about Vital Philosophy, or Necromancy.

Vital Philosophy, the science of animating dead life-forms, is rooted in the invention (by Maturi sage Pierre de Rayal in the year 1118, four centuries before our story begins) of the hematological battery.  While de Rayal's first batteries were made of fired clay and incorporated iron conductors, modern batteries are almost always made of glass while the most common conduction agent has become copper.  Any given battery contains between two ounces and a gallon of human blood aged for one week and then impregnated alchemically with petroleum.  The batteries, when installed in a corpse, restore to it some semblance of life.  Different laws bind the creation of dead for various purposes in the differing locales of Cthun.  In Machen, creation of the dead is permissible only if their intended use is servitude.  All Machi dead are lobotomized, select regions of their brains transmuted into gold to prevent their use as weapons or spies.

The dead, once prepared and implanted with a battery, no longer rot or take action of their own volition.  Instead, for reasons unknown, they wait patiently to be ordered about by the living.


The coven of alchemists, philosophers and mystics known as the Children of the Sun use blood batteries not just in the creation of dead servants but in the elevation of its novices to full initiates, or philosophers.  The battery, implanted beneath a novice's sternum, functions as a second heart and etheric link to the ritual's other participants: the totemic idol(s).  The idols, animals chosen and raised by the novice in question, are killed with copper knives (transmuting their hearts into spiritual energy) and bonded to the novice.  The novice then adopts certain of their characteristics and can, with alchemical exertion, transform into any of his or her idols.  The battery's function in this instance is as a channel for the high levels of energy required for the ritual.  Without it, the novice would combust and die.


The lower-class dead (especially in Machen) are often bought, treated by paid philosophers, and resurrected to serve as slaves to the wealthy and powerful.  Dead slaves also maintain the sewers of Machen's great cities, operate its morgues and serve as attendants to scholars, physicians and mystics.  With their forebrains transmuted into gold they offer little besides brute strength and total obedience.

In Maturin the dead are not lobotomized or enslaved.  Through the power of the Carnelian Throne, all citizens of Maturin are resurrected.  They work and live in their own secluded communes, venerating their strange god.  They may choose to die true deaths at any time.

Aligher does not permit the use or creation of dead.


The Machi Civil War (1218-1221) saw the first large-scale implementation of the dead as military assets when Field Marshal Salla Bakkar turned his legions against Thulhus IX, Padishah of the Thulhun Empire.  Two million died in the long, bloody war, with the dead turned against their slayers as more and more fell.  Eventually Bakkar was captured by mercenaries while riding with his field staff, brought before the Padishah in Leng and beheaded on the spot.  All militarized dead were repurposed as slaves or destroyed by the Padishah's command.

Bands of freed dead still terrorize Maturi's outlying provinces, relics of wars fought long before the ascent of the other great powers.  Now the dead cannot fight in the royal armies on pain of burial.


Maturi is ruled by a conclave of the noble dead, groomed throughout life to lead after their eventual ascent to lichdom.  None die natural deaths but participate in elaborate ritual suicides before taking their thrones in the Undying Senate.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Jafar Mirzam had been High Scrivener to the Hierophant of Machen since before the end of the Holy Revolution. Twenty two years he had recorded the holy man's messages, scheduled his appointments and recorded his prophecies and pronouncements. Often of late his hands ached, worst of all when it rained and the cold crept into the stones of His Holiness's study, but Jafar did not complain. To complain would be to set his pride above the needs of the People's Holy Confederacy. Instead, Jafar continued to take the Hierophant's dictation as His Holiness paced the long, narrow confines of his private sanctum. Massud Madras, Hierophant of Machen, was still powerful in his fiftieth year. His green eyes still pierced to the quick and his beard was still long, black and luxurious, threaded only lightly with grey. Bareheaded and dressed in a plain saffron-colored cassock he looked like nothing so much as a heathen sun god come down from the heavens to cast judgment upon the sinful.

“To the self-styled Son of Heaven, that profane and callow pig, I the rightful mouthpiece of the All-Knowing Maintainer address this missive.”

Jafar wrote quickly, his quill dashing across the fine white paper spread across the writing board he kept balanced on his knees. Not a single drop of ink fell out of place. The Hierophant continued to pace, hands clasped behind his back, lips pursed in a brooding expression of distaste. His eyes flashed jade fire whenever he looked out the window to the west, toward rebel Carnassa.

“Know, O rebellious youth, that if you do not turn from your path of sin and depravity you will be subject to the justice of the Maintainer in both his earthly and divine demesnes. As your body is rent and racked, so too will your soul be cast down into the freezing hollow of the deepest Hell where Lcharacuel, our Holy Lord's faithless son, lies imprisoned, waiting to receive the damned into his kingdom. Know that if you stand against the armies of the People's Holy Confederacy, you will be struck down, your kingdoms razed, your followers butchered and their land salted. To a man you will perish in the cleansing fire of judgment.”
The Hierophant paused in his pacing and turned to Jafar. “Is it any good, do you think?”

“Very stirring, Holiness,” said Jafar, not looking up.

The Hierophant seemed satisfied. He resumed his circuit of the room, eyes sweeping its austere confines. Holy texts, most revealed by Massud himself and recorded in Jafar's neat hand, lined a single oaken bookshelf. A modest desk occupied the space before the room's only luxury, a colossal picture window depicting the Maintainer's forging of their world of Cthun. The planet spun half-formed, a great sphere of water and the Three Continents, joined by their bridges, held in the compass of two strange, six-fingered hands made all of light. Light fell through the window in a dozen colors, washing the spotless tiles and the plain rugs that covered them.

“I want to scare the bastard,” said the Hierophant, pausing again with one hand on his desk, “but damn it, Jafar, what if he purges his cities? What if he burns our churches? Organizes riots? Do I court him or sermonize him?” He circled his desk and sat, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Start again, would you?”

“Yes, Holiness,” said Jafar. Carefully, he dusted the half-written letter with sand and then rolled it up and placed it in one of the little wooden scroll cases he kept with him at all times before laying a fresh sheet of paper across his writing board. He dipped his quill in ink, tapped its point against the bowl, shook out his sleeve and waited. His hands throbbed.

The Hierophant shook his head, then stood. “No, it's no damned use. We'll try again tomorrow. Maintainer's eyes! Give me the open plain, a good hawk and a swift mount and I swear I'll pass this accursed mantle to some slick-haired mulla.” He turned his back on Jafar and stared out through the rain-streaked sunlight at Leng's labyrinthine streets. “You may go. I've no further need of you tonight.”

“As his Holiness wishes,” said Jafar. With practiced swiftness he covered his ink pot, wiped his quill, stowed his instruments in their leather roll and left the Hierophant's office. His bad hip twinged with every step as he descended the spiral stairs of the Basilica's northeastern dome. The silent Confederate Alchemists at the base of the stair, two albinos clad in flowing red, let Jafar pass with nothing more than muttered “aghas.” He was a familiar sight, one of a few the Hierophant had kept close throughout the years. Jafar was glad of their tolerance. He was in no mood for questions and truth circles. His bath, his supper and his bed were his only wishes. Alone, he hobbled to his cramped apartments in the Basilica's northern wing, nodding in passing to the swarms of muftis, clerics, scholars and soldiers that thronged the Basilica's thousand chambers. There was no bath, of course, when he reached his humble quarters. He always forgot to tell the servants to draw it, and anyways the tub was cracked and held water poorly. Supper was cold flatbread and hummus garnished with peppers and white cheese. He lost his appetite after only a few bites, as he always did. Sighing, Jafar pushed away his bowl and rose from his table. He undressed himself with some difficulty and lay down naked on his hard, narrow bed.

It had been different before, out on the plains with the Believer Tribes, before the revolution and the move to the great cities. They had ridden beneath the Maintainer's Eye, had praised Him with faces prostrate in the sand and warred against His enemies in righteous battle. Those days had been sere, swift and harsh. Now life was fat and full of water. Slow. Bloated. Jafar looked up at the ceiling of his room, charting the familiar cracks and imperfections in the plaster. Sleep was a long time in coming. When it did come, he dreamed of a little moon that he held in the palm of his hand until a thousand, thousand moths came up from the earth and ate it away to nothing before his eyes as their wings raised great clouds of dust.

His daughter Naree's exasperated voice woke him. “Father, you've hardly eaten anything in a fortnight. What mother would think if she could see you here, living like a bachelor! Maintainer's eyes! She'd have a fit.”

Jafar sat up groggily, blinking sleep from his eyes. Naree glared at him from the doorway, a shorter, darker-haired reflection of his long-dead Jani. “I'm to attend His Holiness in an hour,” he growled, swinging one leg over the edge of his bed. His limbs were stiff and weary, but through his narrow window he could see the first hint of the sun's light creeping up over the city.

Naree moved into the room and set down a tray laden with porridge, apricots, dates, oranges, lemon-roasted ovirus chicks and a cup of goat's milk. Jafar's stomach turned over just looking at it. “Too rich,” he grunted, limping to his bureau. He threw open its doors and pulled out a clean grey sherwani and a white underrobe. Fumbling with numb fingers he dressed himself while his daughter scowled at him. Willful, like her mother. He could feel his temper fraying already.

“Jamshid agha says you'll not use your cane.”

Jafar buttoned his sherwani, fingers warming to the task. “I don't need the accursed thing.”

“He says your hip is worsening, father. Perhaps you could-”

“A man's word is law beneath the roof of a virtuous House,” said Jafar as he straightened the collar of his underrobe. “I won't have my daughter telling me what to do. It isn't seemly, Naree.”

“But Jamshid is your physician, father,” protested Naree, close to tears. “You must at least listen to him! Let him explain-”

“Enough!” snapped Jafar, rounding on the girl. A particularly violent twinge in his side nearly buckled his leg, but he seized hold of the bureau and kept his feet with some measure of decorum. Maintainer, but the pain was bad! Anger burned bright in his chest as he stared at his daughter, weeping openly now. “I am not some cripple to be caged and fed on sweetmeats,” Jafar growled as he lurched away from the bureau and took up his writing board and instruments. He limped past his daughter, fighting the urge to groan at the pain that lanced up and down his bade side. “Find some way to employ yourself besides torturing me. Maintainer's Eyes, would that I had been given a son!”

He slammed the door on the girl's anguished face and forced himself down the hall, toward the steps and his morning appointment with the Hierophant. His anger still flamed hot within him as he began the long, arduous task of climbing the spiral stair. His leg burned as though it had been dipped in boiling lead and his hip felt as though it were fresh broken, the injury twenty minutes past instead of twenty years. At the door to the Hierophant's office he paused to compose himself. A thin tendril of guilt crept into his resolute displeasure. Had he been too harsh? Jani had always spoiled the girl, their only child, and she was willful. Jafar shook his head, ran a hand through his grey hair and limped into the Hierophant's study. He would mend things with his daughter later, make it up to her somehow.

The Hierophant was standing exactly where he had been when Jafar had left him the night before. He did not turn as Jafar took his customary seat and prepared a fresh sheet of paper. The quill's nib clinked against the glass of the inkwell. It was raining outside the picture window.

“O Shah,” began the Hierophant, “great has been the spilling of blood accomplished by the swords of your ardent followers. Great has been the grief of the Somnium in the wake of so much death. Our holy office wishes only to see an end to misery and the toil of war, but We will not shrink from the punishment merited by your crimes. Repent and drink from the glass of mercy. Persist and taste the poison of your hubris.”

Jafar's quill flew in neat, swift arcs. The Hierophant paused, lost in thought, and then turned from the window. His eyes were sunken, his long black hair uncombed. “There was a messenger in the night from the watchtower in the Pass of Unth,” he said. “The Shah of Five Thousand Years has burned the Great Tabernacle of Truth and Revelation in Shibola, with all its clerics and worshipers inside it. It's said their screams could be heard on the wind for miles.”

He turned back to the window, leaving Jafar to stare dumbly at his back. “It's no good,” he said. “Throw that away. We'll start again.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Safa knelt naked and painted before the sixteen elders of the Coven of the Sun, Leng's greatest alchemical council, trying to control her breathing as the temple slaves brought out her birds in their spun-steel cages. Her mouth itched fiercely and the stones of the temple's well of the sun were wet and cold beneath her aching knees. The birds, buzzard, raven and crow, screamed and beat their wings against the bars of their cages as the slaves set them down in a half-circle behind Safa. The Senior Alchemist, Omar, rose from his seat and began to chalk circles on the stones with swift, bold strokes while the other wrinkled Elders watched. Safa struggled to hold still as the elderly alchemist encircled her and then each of her birds in turn. He spent another quarter hour scribbling equations, modifiers and addenda on the wet stone, then straightened with an effort. He turned back to the elders.

“The theorems have been verified,” he said in his low, raspy voice. “Elder Abena, if you would produce the sacred battery?”

Abena, a stately woman in her middle years, stood and descended the broad, shallow steps of the Elders' Dais to where Omar stood with his back to Safa. From her voluminous red gowns Abena drew out a phial of glass the size of a man's clenched fist. The phial was half-filled with thick red blood and a rod of copper ran between its ends, anchoring the hematological charge to the planes of glass. Abena held it reverently in her henna-painted hands. She offered Safa a reassuring smile, then knelt and offered the vital battery to the younger woman. Safa took it, forcing herself to return Abena's smile despite the nauseous churning in her stomach. She dared so much more than her sponsors and elders knew. Her birds' screeches clawed at her ears as she clutched the battery in paint-slicked, oily fingers. Omar and Abena stepped back, making way for the black-robed Master Surgeon in his stark carnelian robes and gilt operating mask with its flat, austere expression. A dead orderly limped dull-eyed behind the ghastly figure, pushing a silver cart laden with copper instruments, necessitated by the nature of the alchemy involved, and little bowls of alcohol.

A hush fell over the well of the sun.

“By the Maintainer's grace, you have learned the ways of the Hundredfold Year,” said Omar. “You will be a daughter of the sun.”

“By the Maintainer's grace, you have adhered to the codes of the Oldest Laws,” said Abena. “You will be a daughter of the sun.”

A light drizzle began to fall. Safa blinked water from her eyelashes. The coven's ancient grandmistress, Farah Kadiz, got slowly to her feet. Her eyes were webbed with cataracts, her skin papery and translucent with age. She leaned heavily on her gilt cane, a shrunken skeleton of a woman in rich robes of red and black. Sorcery and alchemy united in one person. She stretched out a trembling, yellow-nailed hand toward Safa. “By the Maintainer's grace,” she wheezed, “I create you now alchemist, now philosopher, now daughter of the sun.
“Sharif, you may begin.”

The coven stood as the Master Surgeon stepped forward and gestured for Safa to lie down. She did, shivering at the cold of the flagstones. Sharif knelt and made his incision in one swift stroke, cutting just below Safa's left breast. She inhaled sharply, clutching the ice-cold battery against her grease-painted belly. Blood bubbled over her skin in feverish rivulets as Sharif carved. Safa gritted her teeth, eyes watering. Her fingers were numb by the time the surgeon took the battery from her and slipped it into the open mouth of the cavity he had carved into her. The glass was cold against her flesh. It stung, as though a dozen bees had been crammed into the cavity of her breast above her beating heart and then

Pain. Had she ever really felt it before? No. Not like this.

The sky above her, a drab and washed-out circle held within the compass of a hundred feet of mosaic stone, burned with electric light as her limbs convulsed and her brain blazed with new sensations. The battery seared the edges of her open wound, its copper transducer blazing with actinic light as the blood stored in it kindled. Dimly, Safa was aware of her birds being taken from their cages by slaves. A brief pang of guilt lanced through her as the slaves drew their copper knives, but pain burned it away in an explosion of wild color. She heard the thunder of a thousand wings, saw the land wheel beneath her as she soared. Her eyes were unskinned and she saw. Carrion sprawled across the world beneath her as she rode the thermals. All rotting, some of it still alive. Her claws grasped bark. She vomited into the gaping beaks of featherless chicks, ugly and strident.

When she returned to herself the birds were dead in their neatly-chalked circles, throats cut and wings askew, and her entire body was one exquisite ache. The rain, though it had become a downpour, no longer seemed so cold. Safa sucked aired through her teeth, then propped herself up on her elbows. A scar beneath her breast, thick and ropy, was the only evidence of Sharif's incision. The Elders watched her in silence. The Master Surgeon had removed his mask and stood cleaning his instruments in an alcohol solution, ignoring the others. His dead slave scratched fitfully at its battery harness. The rain drummed against the stones and the seated Elders watched like so many solemn statues, shielded from the downpour by the dais's overhang. Old faces full of interest, boredom, lecherous conceit.

“The ceremony is finished,” said Farah Kadiz, tapping her cane against the dais. “You are elevated to the rank of philosopher. Be welcome among us, Safa Khan.”

Safa stood slowly and held out her arms as a slave stepped forward to robe her in black. The material was warm against her skin. “Thank you, khanum,” she said, and bowed. She turned and left the well of the sun, the beat of her new heart a tinny rhythm against her sternum. She fought to keep her pace even, her breathing slow. When she had left the well and its inhabitants far behind she ducked into a lightless alcove and vomited up her little secret. The eyeball landed in her cupped palms in a puddle of bile and saliva. Swallowing it had been an ordeal, and she'd downed nearly a quart of wine before letting Bassam brand her mouth with an alchemical circle to harness its properties to the greater purpose of the ceremony. She grinned, crushed the bloodshot sphere in her fist and flung the jellied remains out the next window she passed. Stepping lightly, she raced through the cloistered halls and burst out the moldering doors of the Tabernacle into the rain. Her blood sang as she raced down rain-slacked steps and turned her face up into the deluge. Her black hair was plastered to her skin, and soon her robes were soaked through. Garden slaves watched her warily as she spun in place, laughing like a little girl. Leng sprawled around the Tabernacle's colorless hill, a vast expanse of Terracotta and cut stone still garish with the trappings of the dead Empire.

It took so little effort to find the birds that roosted in the Tabernacle's eaves and in its ancient bell tower. So little effort to see through their eyes, to hear with their ears and whisper suggestions to their bright, clever little minds. Safa sat down on a marble bench, eyes closed, and with each heartbeat she encompassed more of Leng's bloated expanse. She was the pigeons in the gutters of the street of lepers, the rooks nesting beneath a bridge that spanned the frothing waters of Nura's Regret, the oviraptor lurking half-dead in the alleyway outside the fullery, the old raven perched on a stand in the corner of a cobbler's shop. It had worked.
It had worked.

Bassam was dozing by the darkened window when Safa returned to their little apartment just north of the market. She paused in the doorway, water puddling around her bare feet. Her lover was a tall man, lean and whipcord strong with thick, curly black hair and a thin scar running from the corner of his right eye to his temple. Safa crossed the narrow room in three quick steps, shrugging out of her sopping robes as she did, and slithered into Bassam's lap. Her back fit the plane of his chest as though the two had been made for each other. His arm wrapped around her waist, his hand splaying over the soft skin of her stomach. “You're wet,” he said.

“Aren't I always?”

“Did it work?”

She twisted snakelike in his arms and kissed him, running her tongue over his uneven teeth. “Yes,” she breathed against his mouth. “It worked.”

He fairly flew out of his chair, spinning her as though she were a child. He let out a great shout of laughter, then pulled her close against his body. She tore at his clothes as he covered her breasts in kisses. His hand slid between her legs as she undid his belt and tugged his tunic over his head, trembling as he parted her lips. Hot and moist she moved her hips, sucking hungrily at his neck, his mouth, the curve of his shoulder. “I knew it,” he said as he guided her down to the floor and straddled her, his fingers sliding free of her wet cunt. “I knew it would work.”

Safa shuddered in pleasure as she guided him into her. His familiar length electrified her, sending little tremors down her legs. “Don't stop,” she moaned.

He pinned her arms to the floor and leaned down close to her. The heat of his breath washed her ear. “Now nothing can stop us.”